Thinking About Winning: Leadership in the Global War for Talent

The Chairman and CEO of GE reflects on the continuing importance of sound leadership in a rapidly changing global business landscape.

Date Posted

1 Nov 2008


Issue 5, 14 Nov 2008

At a company like GE, which is over 130 years old, leadership and people management go hand in hand. We pull talented people together and focus on developing five growth traits: external focus, clear thinking, imagination, inclusiveness and expertise.

In a dynamic, fast-changing, increasingly competitive world, it is essential that leaders are able to take personal responsibility and have the ability to understand how the company fits in with the world. Alignment and time management are vital and you have to realise the things that are really important: setting priorities, measuring outcomes and rewarding people, developing and helping them. It is crucial to understand people, to always be fair, and to want the best for them.

Leadership is also about knowing how to get the best out of people. It is about establishing trust between all members of the team in order to steer and motivate the team towards success, by harnessing diverse skills and qualities inherent within the team and coordinating all of this into a strategy that can produce positive results.

The best leaders in the world are good at identifying the vast array of talents and skills that are available to them and understanding how to blend and use all of these very unique skills and resources. They know how to create a team atmosphere which is stimulating, fun and challenging and one in which every member realises that they have a voice and will be listened to.

In your view, how has the global competition for talent changed over time and what can we expect, going forward?

I believe that competition for the best people is now a central axis of corporate competition. With new technologies transforming the nature of work, the skills demanded, and the ways in which people collaborate, I think that pressures on recruitment and retention of talent will continue.

The rapid expansion of skilled labour in key emerging markets further intensifies the global competition for human capital. China now produces four times as many scientists and engineers as the US. India has also become a major source of technological talent, including growing numbers of young professionals holding advanced degrees from leading universities in Europe and the US.

Leading organisations must build capabilities to understand and source talent more strategically, based on a clear definition of skill gaps and needs for the future. At GE, we are in a continuous search for global talents with local expertise—talents who can positively impact GE in terms of innovation and growth. In Asia, for instance, moving people around is often a cultural challenge. So there is a need to always understand the situation and the environment you are in. One size does not fit all.

What strategies does GE employ to attract, retain and make the most of the talent it needs to succeed? What challenges does it face?

Considering the ongoing talent war, I would say attracting talent and retaining them continues to be a challenge. Being the seventh largest company in the US, and the 11th in the world, GE is a big target for top talents—companies everywhere want our people. So we invest in our people. We spend around $1.2 billion on training annually, grooming them on various levels at different career bands, and focusing on professional skills. We do classroom training, on-the-job mentoring and coaching. We are also accelerating overseas assignments where employees can further expand their multi-cultural skills and interpersonal relationships. For commercial and sales leadership roles, we provide commercial leadership skills and training in enabling managers to imagine, define and build new businesses across global markets in their primary businesses as well as in alternate new spaces or vertical markets.

The best leaders in the world are good at identifying the vast array of talents and skills that are available to them and understanding how to blend and use all of these very unique skills and resources.

Our people participate in a broad range of leadership development programmes, both as individuals and as part of the leadership teams of their respective businesses. We also hold regular Asian talent forums in key cities across the region, as well as meetings with our GE Women’s Network, which is an organisation that empowers the female employees of GE. At GE, employee engagement is key, with on-the-job training programmes that provide our strong talent pool with chances to develop, grow and be recognised for performance, regardless of nationality and seniority.

In your view, what positive role can government and public policy play to support businesses in their competition for the best talent and workforce?

In the ASEAN region, there are strong labour protection laws. These can make the market more attractive, as regulations help to make talent pool pricing even more relevant to the market. At the end of the day, it is the government’s and every company’s role to safeguard the welfare of their constituencies and people. The ASEAN Economic Community 2015 integration initiative will be an important enabler to allow the migration of talents in prescribed occupations, for example, design engineers and medical technicians, across international borders within ASEAN. This proposed action by the governments in ASEAN will provide rapid deployment of key talents to high-growth sectors across the region, and support stable economic development, while providing competitive compensation benefits for individuals with special skills.

Singaporeans are external thinkings who can help bridge economies within ASEAN as well as China and India.

What is your impression of Singapore and its workforce?

I’ve been at GE since 1982 and have worked with almost every nationality. I find Singaporeans to be very diverse in terms of talent. Singaporeans also possess a high level of competency, and are external thinkers who can help bridge economies within ASEAN as well as China and India from a cultural and business perspective. Singapore talents are a highly educated workforce, with a high sense of professionalism, great execution and strong work ethics. Singaporeans also have terrific communication skills given that English is widely spoken in the country.

Looking ahead to the next 20 years, what advice would you give to business and government leaders in terms of leadership?

All I can say is, it will always be tough out there. Managing change and keeping up with change is very important. Strategic thinking requires leaders to think differently—and think ahead. However, the most important thing is perseverance. You need to be able to face matters every day with energy and passion. You also need to be able to motivate employees by giving them jobs that have the possibility of changing the world. There is nothing better than thinking about winning.

You need to be able to motivate employees by giving them jobs that have the possibility of changing the world.

But you also need to have unyielding integrity, which is something that we take very seriously in GE. Past accomplishments do not guarantee future success. Leaders and companies that seek to continue to lead must perform with unyielding integrity earning the trust of stakeholders—be they governments, customers, suppliers, shareholders, creditors, employees, media or the communities where we live and work.


Jeffrey R. Immelt is Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of GE. Mr Immelt was appointed on 7 September 2001 after serving as GE's President and Chairman-elect since 2000. He began his GE career in 1982. Over the last 24 years, Mr Immelt has held a series of global leadership roles in GE's Plastics, Appliance, and Medical businesses. He became an Officer of GE in 1989, and joined the GE Capital Board in 1997. In 2005 and 2006, Barron's named Mr Immelt one of the World's Best CEOs. He serves as Chairman of The Business Council and is on the board of three non-profit organisations: Catalyst, devoted to advancing women in business; Robin Hood, focused on addressing poverty in New York City; and the New York Federal Reserve Bank. For more information about GE, visit the company's website at

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